It is probably only now that we are starting to realise the significance of electing a Pope from Latin America, part of the Global South. If we needed any further proof, it was the Amazonian Synod. It was heavily criticised by many European Cardinals, and others. First, they criticised the indigenous headdress, while being unconscious of the origins of their own birettas, soutanes, etc. They were even more upset with the statue of a pregnant woman that the indigenous peoples gave to the Pope. Despite all the explanations, they regarded it as “pagan” and someone stole it from the Church where it was enshrined, and threw it into the Tiber. Once again, they seemed to be unconscious of how much the Church in its, feasts, worship and devotions had drawn on pre-Christian feasts, and culture. [I try never to use the word “pagan” because it is a completely negative word with no positive content. It ignores the deep religious values inherent in the culture of indigenous peoples.]
While I do not agree with Pope Francis’ critics, I think they had an accurate sixth sense for what was at stake. The European monopoly of Christianity is being challenged. As early as Evangelii Gaudium, Francis had said, “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture. It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.” [EG 118]
For centuries, we in the West have “owned” the church and the Gospel. We have dictated the terms in which people in the Global South have understood doctrine, lived Christian morals and celebrated the liturgy. Those days are ending.
By 2050, there will be three billion Christians in the world and only one in six of these will be non-Hispanic whites. By 2050, 80% of Catholics will live in or trace their origins to the Global South. The typical Christian will soon be a poor coloured woman from a shantytown in Kinshasa, Buenos Aries, Manila or some other large city in the majority world. These cities will be important Christian centres and Pope Francis has already appointed many of their bishops as Cardinals.
Australia is an island and we tend to become isolated, superior and preoccupied with “western issues”. However, if we are not to be left behind, we need to build bridges to this wider Church. Increasingly the important Church decisions will be made in the “South”. They are more conservative both in belief and in moral teaching, and strongly supernatural or charismatic in orientation. We can already see this in Australia with the overseas priests and religious and with our ethnic brothers and sisters.
So, ironically, we have lots to gain by coming to grips with being a “Southern” church. As missionaries, we went to margins and now the margins have come to us. Forty-nine percent of all Australians are born overseas or have a parent born overseas. We are a multicultural and multi-faith society. We need to learn how to be more open and humble, to live in a healthy intercultural way, to appreciate difference and to learn how to dialogue.
We are also challenged to partnership with our neighbours in the Pacific as Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of Suva, Fiji and Cardinal John Ribat of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea have both called for a Synod for Oceania.
Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and is a member of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.